“How do I know if I’m being sexist?”

My last article on Changing the oppressive culture of sexism in Corporate America got some unexpected attention, and as such I want to explain a few things for those who may be new to thinking about sexism at work.

Sexism is real. It’s happened to me, and it’s happened to you (yes, even men). Gender roles and stereotypes have been deeply ingrained in our society since ancient times. These learned roles and ways of perceiving others have been honed over centuries, but they are largely social constructs and are not truth. The fact that you have biases isn’t your fault.

What is your fault is the level of hubris you must have if you believe that your judgment has somehow been unaffected by the stereotypes and roles you have been surrounded by and socialized to perform since birth.

It is your fault if you continue to mistake a social construct (i.e. gender roles and stereotypes) for objective truth even when presented with the facts.

Our brains have evolved to be extremely efficient decision-makers. Because of this, we have unconscious processes that happen in milliseconds allowing us to form judgments and draw conclusions automatically and without effort. The technical term for this is cognitive heuristics. Often, it’s referred to as “gut feeling.”

Gut feeling is often based on biases. Decisions that affect people, careers, and lives should never be made based solely on gut feeling. Gut feeling has been romanticized as ultimate truth and intuition, but it isn’t.

The most insidious and difficult to pinpoint forms of sexism occur because of biases and heuristics that the perpetrator is probably unaware of. A perpetrator may be so unaware of these unconscious biases that even when confronted, they are unable to recognize them. Or, their shame and refusal to admit fallibility may be to blame.

All sexes and gender identities fall prey to holding the same kinds of biases. We all live in the same society, and as such, we are all conditioned in similar ways to use the prevailing stereotypes for automatic decision-making.

Still don’t believe you’re biased? Take this Implicit Association Test created by scientists from Harvard, University of Virginia, and University of Washington which is used around the world to measure implicit biases. This inventory of tests allows you to check your automatic (implicit) preferences in a variety of areas, including in Gender-Career association.

Now that I’ve explained why it’s a bit ridiculous to believe you’re not biased, I want to address how these biases affect women in the workplace.

Women at work suffer because of overarching stereotypes that define how they are (descriptive stereotypes) as well as how they should be (prescriptive stereotypes). These stereotypes and the unconscious biases that are derived from them affect how women (and men) are perceived and treated in the workplace (Heilman & Parks-Stamm, 2007).

Descriptive stereotypes about women boil down to a belief in their inherent niceness, submissiveness, emotionality, and lack of independence and competency. In contrast to this, most believe that in order to be a successful manager you must have independence, competence, stoicism, and assertiveness. These contrasting beliefs result in a perceived “lack of fit” for women in managerial roles (2007). The deep-seeded and sometimes unconscious belief that women generally lack the competency needed for managerial or stereotypically male roles prevents them from being promoted or selected for such roles.

In addition to this, there is also a bias for past experience. Research has shown that if a role is stereotypically male and you have the option to choose between a well-qualified woman or well-qualified man, the man will be chosen because you’ve already seen men succeed at the role and hiring another man fulfills the status quo. This is also known as the “cognitive availability” heuristic — what is most easily remembered or imagined is likely to affect judgment.

Prescriptive stereotypes govern how women “should” behave. Women who defy these stereotypes bring down harsh penalties on themselves (2007). For instance, U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was called a “f***ing bitch” by a male colleague for her assertiveness and refusal to back down on the issues she (and her constituents) care about. How many times have you heard men calling other men names like that on the Capitol steps?

Refusing to adhere to prescriptive stereotypes and “behave like a lady” in the workplace can cause ostracizing treatment from both men and women. It can cause the impression that a woman is emotionally unhealthy as well, because they do not display the “right” traits (2007).

Fun fact I learned while researching for this article: There are more CEOs of large U.S. companies who are named David (4.5%) than there are CEOs who are women (4.1%).

In fact, research even shows that simply being successful is a betrayal of prescriptive stereotypes for women, which can cause disapproval and negative perception from others. To quote the research (Heilman & Parks-Stamm, 2007):

This means that despite their success [women] may be disadvantaged relative to men at their organizational level when career decisions are made. These ideas are consistent with data provided by Lyness and Judiesch (1999) that tracked the advancement of 30,000 managers and showed that as women moved up the organizational hierarchy, their likelihood of being promoted was less than that of similarly positioned men.

We appear to be damned if we do and damned if we don’t, too.

Despite all the hurdles we have to overcome, however, women in business outperform men in a variety of areas.

For instance, women make better leaders and tend to make smarter decisions under stress, and companies led by women frequently outperform competitors. Research has shown that the smartest teams aren’t the most diverse, but the ones with the most women on them. Additionally, women may be generally more productive than men — with one study showing that women complete approximately 10% more work in less time.

Despite all of the evidence showing the true value of women at work, we still battle against preconceived notions and assumptions made about our personality and fit for leadership roles.

Well, you may not ever know for sure. It is incredibly difficult to change or control unconscious biases.

A few common examples that indicate a sexist culture that you can try to be aware of include:

  • Always asking or assuming that the woman in a meeting will take notes
  • Allowing women colleagues to plan, set up, provide, and serve food at company events, and then also clean up after everyone
  • Interrupting or talking over women in meetings, or repeating their ideas as if they are your own and taking credit
  • Not listening to or being held accountable for listening to female managers
  • Constantly using sports metaphors with the assumption that everyone gets it (this is exclusionary to everyone who isn’t a sports fan)
  • Assuming that a woman’s anger is irrational or due to “the time of the month”
  • Telling a woman she has the wrong tone or is being emotional, when in all honesty if a man behaved that way he would be considered assertive, clever, funny, or ambitious

This is by no means an exhaustive list. The best way to combat gender biases is to be aware that you and others have them, and to use systematic and method-driven decision-making when it comes to assessing and reacting to women in your workplace.

Consider the assumptions you’re making about women’s behavior or attitudes and whether you’re perceiving them through a lens of how they “should be” based on stereotypes rather than a lens of objective value and contribution.

And, make an effort to hire more women on your teams, especially in traditionally male industries and roles.

Above all, make sure you empower women and encourage them. Women are taught to have lower confidence levels than men earlier in their careers, but they are no less competent. Helping to bolster their confidence may help women start on a more level playing field earlier in their careers.

Reference list:

  1. Bennett, Jessica. (2016), Feminist Fight Club. HarperCollins Publishers, New York, NY.
  2. Berman, Robby. (2018), “Women are more productive than men, according to new research.” World Economic Forum, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/10/women-are-more-productive-than-men-at-work-these-days.
  3. Heilman, M.E. and Parks-Stamm, E.J. (2007), “Gender Stereotypes in the Workplace: Obstacles to Women’s Career Progress”, Correll, S.J. (Ed.) Social Psychology of Gender (Advances in Group Processes, Vol. 24), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 47–77.
  4. James, Geoffrey. (2016), “Science Says: Woman in Business Outperform Men.Inc.com, https://www.inc.com/geoffrey-james/science-says-woman-in-business-outperform-men.html.
  5. Johnson, Stefanie K., et al. (2016), “If There’s Only One Woman in Your Candidate Pool, There’s Statistically No Chance She’ll Be Hired.” Harvard Business Review, https://hbr.org/2016/04/if-theres-only-one-woman-in-your-candidate-pool-theres-statistically-no-chance-shell-be-hired.
  6. Pinsker, Joe. (2014), “Hedge Funds Run by Women Outperform Those Run by Men.” The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/08/hedge-funds-run-by-women-outperform-other-hedge-funds/375542/.
  7. Tinsley, Catherine H. and Ely, Robin J. (2018), “What Most People Get Wrong About Men and Women.” Harvard Business Review, https://hbr.org/2018/05/what-most-people-get-wrong-about-men-and-women.
  8. Wojcik, John. (2020), “AOC: ‘Rep. Yoho called me, and I quote, a “fucking bitch.’” People’s World, https://www.peoplesworld.org/article/aoc-rep-yoho-called-me-and-i-quote-a-fucking-bitch/
  9. Woolley, Anita, et al. (2015), “Why Some Teams Are Smarter Than Others.” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/18/opinion/sunday/why-some-teams-are-smarter-than-others.html.
  10. Zenger, Jack and Folkman, Joseph. (2019), “Research: Women Score Higher Than Men in Most Leadership Skills.” Harvard Business Review, https://hbr.org/2019/06/research-women-score-higher-than-men-in-most-leadership-skills.

Writing evidence-based, thought-provoking content to spread knowledge and ideas that help people. I hold an MS I/O Psychology and BA Philosophy.